business advice | Dec 29, 2021 |
I’m trying to set new boundaries with clients. How do I start?

Dear Sean,

As I’ve grown my firm, I’ve gotten better about setting boundaries with clients around when I’m available and what I’m available for. Two of my earliest clients, however, have not gotten on board. These are clients I’m so grateful for, because they took a chance on me when I was green and gave me a lot of creative freedom—but they are incredibly needy. For example, despite having all of the user manuals in a “home maintenance” binder I organized for them, they call me when they can’t figure out how to change the water filter or access a certain oven setting, or what kind of light bulb to use as a replacement, and on and on.

In some ways, it’s not their fault. That’s absolutely the kind of relationship I encouraged when I was first starting out. I wanted to be needed, and thought that being on call would lead to more referrals. And maybe it has—they have sent many a great client my way. But my life has changed now, and my business is no longer set up around being at a client’s beck and call. I’ve tried communicating that directly with these clients (“My business has changed and this is no longer how I work”), and I still try to drop hints (“It’s in your user manual, but … ”), but the calls and texts continue.

How do I establish new boundaries based on the way I operate now? Or am I stuck forever with a few clients who are dead set on working the way I used to work?

Always On Call

Dear Always On Call,

If you give a young child sugar cereal for three days in a row (hey, it is still Christmas break), then decide that it is better they eat healthier food for breakfast, my guess is that your kid will not run up and give you a warm hug to thank you for looking after their best interests. And if you give in to the tantrum, my prediction is that they will continue to throw tantrums.

While I am not comparing your clients to children—OK, maybe a little—I am saying that your expectation that you will be heard and respected when you ultimately acquiesce to their requests is all on you.

I appreciate the past value of these clients to you. They gave you your big break and have been a tremendous source of referrals. You feel beholden to them. However—could you feel the big “however” coming there?—living in the past will keep you there. You did remarkable work for your early clients and that is why they referred you—not because you were nice, cheap or accommodating, but because you were and are really good at your job. You were then remarkable for the client you were referred to, and the one they referred you to, and so on. That is how you earned your success. End of story.

If your work is complete, then let it be complete. If you are confident in your “home maintenance” binder, let it stand on its own. Ironically, you undercut the power of your own work when you answer a question that can clearly be found in your binder. If I knew I could just call or text you rather than look it up, why wouldn’t I?

Which brings me to the most important lesson all people-pleasers (myself very much included) have to learn: You will always disappoint someone. You simply cannot satisfy the needs of all, no matter how hard you try. So do not. Make the choice to serve those who care the most, who honor you, your design and your business the most. Your early clients refuse to see you and your business as it is today. That is on them, yet you are the one who has to live the truth of who you are today if you wish to keep moving forward. They will be frustrated, disappointed, maybe even angry that you will not accommodate them anymore. So be it. Your business does not exist to serve them anymore, and so it cannot, unless you are willing to sacrifice those who it is, in fact, built for now. Easy choice.

Yes, the universe is expansive. But if you live tethered to the past because of the illusion that you owe it something, you ignore the value you have created since then and, more importantly, the value you have yet to create for those who truly honor what you and your business bring to them. Please, let that be enough for you to let go of these early clients fully, tantrum or not.

Homepage image: ©AndreusK/Adobe Stock

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Sean Low is the the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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